NFC South: All-NFC South defense
But there were some solid individual performances. With that in mind, let’s roll out the All-NFC South defense.
Defensive end: Charles Johnson, Panthers. He got his huge contract in the summer, but didn’t take the money and disappear. Johnson came through with nine sacks and also played the run fairly well.
Defensive end: Adrian Clayborn, Buccaneers. Yes, I’m taking the rookie over Atlanta veteran John Abraham. I know Abraham ended up with 9.5 sacks, but 3.5 of them came against Jacksonville and rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Abraham was ordinary most of the season and was on the field for only 13 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps. Clayborn finished with 7.5 sacks. He also was on the field for about 80 percent of Tampa Bay’s defensive snaps, showed he can rush the passer and played the run well. Not much went right for the Bucs in the 2011 season. But they hit on their first-round draft pick.
Defensive tackle: Corey Peters, Falcons. He started in 2010, but was only a run-stuffer then. Peters emerged into a complete defensive tackle in his second season and showed signs he can generate a pass rush in the middle.
Defensive tackle: Brian Price, Buccaneers. Off the top of my head, I was preparing to go with Atlanta’s Jonathan Babineaux or New Orleans’ Sedrick Ellis. Then I looked at their statistics and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’m going with Price, who quietly put together a nice season. He finished with three sacks and was one of the few Bucs who played the run well. More importantly, Price made a nice comeback from surgery on his pelvis and played through the pain of an ankle injury for most of the second half of the season.
Linebacker: Curtis Lofton, Falcons. In a year in which Carolina’s Jon Beason was hurt and New Orleans’ Jonathan Vilma slowed down, Lofton emerged as the NFC South’s best middle linebacker.
Linebacker: Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons. The second-year pro might now be the division’s best all-around linebacker. Weatherspoon is a playmaker and plays with an attitude that the rest of Atlanta’s defense needs to copy.
Linebacker: James Anderson, Panthers. With Beason and Thomas Davis going down early, Anderson was the bright spot in Carolina’s linebacker corps.
Cornerback: Jabari Greer, Saints. He often gets overlooked, but this guy is the best cover corner in the division.
Cornerback: Chris Gamble, Panthers. Gamble got benched by coach John Fox at the end of the 2010 season and his career appeared to be on the downside. But Gamble got a fresh start with coach Ron Rivera and bounced back with a strong season.
Safety: Malcolm Jenkins, Saints. He didn’t make as many big plays as I think he’s capable of, but Jenkins is an enormous talent. If the Saints can add a pass rush, the big plays will flow for Jenkins.
Safety: Thomas DeCoud, Falcons. He was benched briefly early in the season, but DeCoud seemed to get the message that he needed to play better. He finished the season with four interceptions and 86 tackles.
But put that aside and there were some strong individual performances during the regular season. We’re going to highlight some of those performances as we begin to unveil our All-NFC South team for the 2010 season. We’re going to start it off with the defense.
Defensive end: John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons. A lot of people thought he was washed up after a disappointing 2009 season. But Abraham bounced back in a big way. He finished the season with a division-high 13 sacks.
Defensive end: Charles Johnson, Carolina Panthers. After Julius Peppers left for the Chicago Bears, everyone wondered where the pass rush would come from. It ended up coming from Johnson, who produced 11.5 sacks. That number is even better than it sounds when you consider the fact the Panthers seldom were playing with leads and opposing teams didn’t have many games where they were trying desperately to catch up and throwing a lot.
Defensive tackle: Jonathan Babineaux, Atlanta Falcons. Quite simply, he’s easily the best defensive tackle in this division. He also should get more recognition on a league-wide basis. Babineaux plays the run well, which is the main job of any defensive tackle. But he also generates a strong pass rush from the interior, which makes him something of a rarity.
Defensive tackle: Sedrick Ellis, New Orleans Saints. He stayed healthy enough to play in all 16 games for the first time in his three-year career. Ellis produced a career-high six sacks and played the run pretty well.
Linebacker: Curtis Lofton, Atlanta Falcons. Emerged as the unquestioned leader of an Atlanta defense that was good during the regular season. Started to show he can make some big plays, although there is room for more of that in the future.
Linebacker: Jonathan Vilma, New Orleans Saints. Probably the best all-around linebacker in the division. He did a little bit of everything – making tackles, forcing fumbles and making some plays as a pass defender.
Linebacker Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers. It was a strange season for Beason. He left his position in the middle to go outside when Thomas Davis went down with an injury before the season. After Dan Connor suffered a season-ending injury, Beason jumped back to the middle. It was a disastrous season for Carolina in many ways, but Beason was a major reason why the defense was somewhat respectable.
Cornerback Brent Grimes, Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta went out and spent a ton of money to sign Dunta Robinson. His presence helped the secondary, although Robinson didn’t put up huge numbers. Having Robinson on the other side prompted teams to challenge the undersized Grimes. But Grimes responded with five interceptions.
Cornerback: Aqib Talib, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He appeared in only 11 games due to a one-game suspension and a late-season injury. The second cornerback spot on this team came down to Talib and New Orleans’ Jabari Greer, who might be the best cover corner in the division. But Greer produced only two interceptions. Talib had six in a short season.
Safety: Malcom Jenkins, New Orleans Saints. In his first season as a full-time starter and his first season as a safety, Jenkins emerged as perhaps the best defensive player on the team. He moved back over to cornerback when Greer and Tracy Porter were dealing with injuries. Jenkins made plays all season. But his real value might have been most obvious in the playoff loss. He had to sit out with an injury and the Saints were lost without him.
Safety: William Moore, Atlanta Falcons. Much like Jenkins, he was in his first season as a full-time starter. He showed an ability to make big plays. He and Thomas DeCoud should give Atlanta a nice safety tandem for the next several years.
In the end, the selections were made by me. But statistics and input from scouts, coaches and front-office employees was used. Here’s the defense.
Defensive end: Will Smith, Saints. He’s been labeled as an underachiever at times. But that tag didn’t fit this year. Smith had a strong season and was the most consistent player on this defensive line.
Defensive end: Julius Peppers, Panthers. At times, he was absolutely dominant. At other times, he seemed to disappear. Just another usual year in Peppers’ career.
Defensive tackle: Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons. Best player on Atlanta’s defensive line. Would have had an even better season if rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry didn’t get hurt and was able to play next to him all year.
Defensive tackle: Sedrick Ellis, Saints. When he’s healthy, he’s the best defensive tackle in the NFC South.
Linebacker: Jon Beason, Panthers. Probably the best player in the division outside of New Orleans’ Drew Brees.
Linebacker: Jonathan Vilma, Saints. Should get more attention than he does. He’s easily the best player on the New Orleans offense.
Linebacker: Curtis Lofton, Falcons. Became an every-down player this season. The next step is to make the Pro Bowl and that will happen if the Falcons start winning big.
Cornerback: Chris Gamble, Panthers. Closest thing division has to a shutdown corner.
Cornerback: Aqib Talib, Buccaneers. In a tough call, I’m taking Talib over New Orleans’ Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. That’s mainly because Greer and Porter each missed significant time with injuries. Plus, Talib is pretty darn talented, when he’s focused on football.
Safety: Darren Sharper, Saints. The veteran stepped into a new team and became an instant turnover machine.
Safety: Roman Harper, Saints. This guy took some abuse from fans in the past. But this year showed he can be pretty effective when he’s got some talent around him.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
We unveiled the inaugural preseason All-NFC South offense. Today, it's time for the defense.
Anyway you look at it, Peppers was a huge disappointment last year. But a bounce back is very possible from a guy who had some big seasons in the past and still remains one of the best athletes on the planet. Abraham is the most dependable pass rusher in the division. New Orleans' Will Smith and Charles Grant and Tampa Bay's Gaines Adams have enough talent to crack this team at any moment.
A tough call because the division doesn't have as much at this position as it did back in the days when Warren Sapp and Kris Jenkins were arguing over who was the NFL's best defensive tackle. I almost took a leap and included New Orleans rookie Sedrick Ellis, based purely on potential. But it's not right to put a guy on this team until he's taken an NFL snap. Ellis may be on this team at the end of the year. For now, we'll go with the two most solid (although far from spectacular) defensive tackles in the division.
Yeah, Brooks has lost a step and doesn't dominate the way he once did. But he's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's also the best player ever in the NFC South, so he's got to be on this team. Beason and Boley are in their prime. If Jonathan Vilma has the impact the Saints think he will, he'll be on this list at the end of the year.
Carolina's got the best trio of corners in the division with Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall, but none of them stand out like Barber and McKenzie. You can make an argument that Barber is a system player, but the results have been very good for a very long time.
Had to go with a strong safety and a free safety and that meant some serious searching. At strong safety, I went with Harper in a very close call over Carolina's Chris Harris. I like Harris' tackling ability, but Harper's better in pass coverage. At free safety, I'm taking a leap with Jackson because there's not a true center fielder in this division. Jackson had ups and downs in the preseason, but played very well as a rookie last year.
PUNTER: Josh Bidwell, Tampa Bay.
Bidwell is one of the league's most consistent punters and he's coming off one of the best seasons of his career.
LONG SNAPPER: Jason Kyle, Carolina.
You may never have heard of Kyle. That's a good thing. It means he's doing his job very well and he's been doing that for a long time.